Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.
How to Write a Research Paper
This step-by-step guide will help you write a great research paper. You'll learn how to find sources, organize your paper, and how to write a stellar introduction/conclusion.
1. Picking a Topic
2. Starting Research
3. Finding Sources
4. Organizing Your Research
5. Outlining Your Paper
6. How to Include Sources in Your Paper
Picking a Topic
Choose a topic that people disagree on. You don't have to decide which side you believe quite yet, but it helps if you already know there are at least two sides. To find your paper idea, you can look at one of my topic ideas lists or sit and brainstorm:
- What do I know a lot about?
- What issue am I passionate about discussing?
- What really bothers me or makes me mad, sad, or happy?
- What is a subject I've been wanting to know more about?
Is there an issue that you can't make up your mind about? That can be a really good subject because you will be motivated to research and read more about it.
Should You Write on Controversial Topics?
Sometimes your instructor may ban certain topics. Why is that? Probably because they are concerned you won't write a good paper. While controversial topics might be easy to find information about, they can also be hard to argue because:
- People have already chosen a side.
- The arguments on both sides are already well known and it is hard to be original.
- Your audience might be tired of hearing about the issue.
However, if you can think of a new angle, you might be able to tackle a more controversial topic and write an interesting essay. For example, here are a few good topic ideas:
- How can both pro-life and pro-choice groups in our town join together to help prevent unwanted pregnancies?
- How can we find a way to prevent accidental gun violence by children?
- How can we help ensure that no one on death row is innocent of their crimes?
- What can individuals do to reduce their own carbon footprint?
- How can you help a friend who has an unwanted pregnancy but wants to keep the baby?
The trick to making a good argument question on a controversial matter is to think:
- Is there a way to break out of the conventional pro and con side of an issue?
- Is there some common ground that all sides can agree on?
- Can this topic be made personal so that I can address what individuals can do to help?
Starting Your Research
After you have chosen a topic for your essay, answer these questions to help you to understand what you already know and clarify what information you need to find in your research.
- What is the issue? Write it as a question. This is your thesis question.
- What do you already know about this question?
- Who is interested in this issue? This will help you define your audience.
- What do people believe? What are the positions you already know people take on this issue?
- What position do you most agree with? Write this as a full sentence and this can be your thesis answer.
- What are the reasons you believe this position? You can add to these as you research but this can be the basis of your body paragraphs.
- What do you need to learn?
- What are some search terms you can use to find information on this issue?
You may not be able to answer all of these questions, or you may find your answers change as you do more research on the topic. If you really don't know much at all about your issue, you might want to do a short Google search for general information about your topic so that you are more prepared to find specific articles to help you prove your point.
Read More From Owlcation
Use your search engine terms to find resources in your library search engine or Google Scholar. For help in gathering and citing sources correctly see my guide about using MLA Citation and Bibliography which includes links to online engines to formulate your bibliography (it also gives links to APA and Chicago styles).
How to Find Good Sources
Look for Variety: Remember that you want to try to find a variety of sources, not just ones that repeat the same information.
Look for Authoritative Sources: Remember that books, articles from peer-reviewed journals and government statistics are the strongest evidence. Follow your instructor's directions about the type of sources you need for your paper.
- If your library subscribes to Gale Opposing Viewpoints, you can often find most of what you need in that online search engine. Look at your library website for research help or ask the librarians how to start a search on your topic.
- Check out websites of journals that cover your topic and search them for articles on your issue. Here are some ones to try:
To get an international perspective, you might want to look at:
Organizing Your Research
Speed up your research by following these steps:
- Scan: As you find an article, scan it and see whether it is what you need. Email a copy of articles you plan to use to yourself. It generally also helps to print out a copy of each article.
- Mark Important Sections: As you gather each source and read through it, mark the sections that are most useful so you don't have to search for those later.
- Take Notes: Next, make a record for yourself to help you remember why you chose it. Below is a method that works well for many students.
For each source, write:
- How you found it (which online search engine you used so that you can find it again later).
- Bibliographical citation: Your search engine might email this to you, but if it doesn't be sure that you write down all the information you will need about the author, title, publisher, and date. Use EasyBib to help you make your citation.
- Summary: Do a short summary of this source (2-4 sentences) to help you remember the important information.
- Write how you will use this source in your paper: Does this source support your point of view? Or tell a different point of view? For example, you can write:
- The data about____will support the argument that___.
- I can use this to show why this is an important issue right now.
- This source shows the opposing viewpoint that____.
- The information about _____ will help me refute _____.
- ______has a good story to use for the introduction.
- The quote from ____would be good in my conclusion.
Outlining Your Paper
After you have read your sources carefully, you are ready to start working on organizing your notes and sources into an outline. Start by going back to your first notes and revising them using what you've learned so far. Here is a student example:
- Write your thesis question. Example: Is vegetarianism really a healthy diet?
- Write your thesis answer: Example: Vegetarianism can be a healthy diet if you follow the rules of other healthy eating plans such as getting enough protein, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoiding sugars and junk foods.
- Write your reasons for the answer. You should have three or more reasons. These will be your topic sentences for each of your body paragraphs. Write these clearly and use the words of your answer to help you keep focused. You might re-word this later, but keeping that question/answer format will help you keep your main point in mind. Example:
- Vegetarianism is healthy because it provides a more balanced diet approach than the typical American diet which focuses on meat for the main part of the meal
- Another reason that vegetarianism is healthy is that in order to get enough calories, vegetarians tend to eat more vegetables, fruits, and other plant products which are good for you.
- Finally, vegetarianism is healthy because people who are vegetarians have to think about what they eat and that tends to make them be more aware of what they put into their bodies.
4. Write objections to your position and your answer to these objections. When you are writing a paper, the people reading don't get to ask questions, so you need to do that for them and then answer those objections. For example:
- Objection: Some people think that vegetarians can't get enough protein in their diets.
- Answer: Most Americans eat too much protein and vegetarians can easily find enough protein from nuts, beans, and dairy products to satisfy their body's needs.
- Objection: Some people think that vegetarians just eat junk foods.
- Answer: A vegetarian has to follow the same health rules as anyone else. If they eat junk foods, they won't have a healthy diet. However, generally, vegetarians are more aware of the health needs of their bodies and tend to be more careful about eating junk foods and avoiding too much sugar.
Introduction and Conclusion Ideas
|Introduction Ideas||Conclusion Ideas|
Tell the reader what they should believe
Tell the reader what they should do
Opinions of Experts
Tell the reader what they should think
Quote of authority
Explain what will happen if your position is not adopted
Explain how your personal experience validates your position
Point out you understand the limits of your proposal but say it should still be adopted
List of Logical Reasons for position
Give an example of when this worked and say it will work in this situation
Appeal to the common values you and your audience hold
Reverse the scenario and show how your position will help the situation
History of Issue
Use resolutions of problems in past as an example of how this situation can be resolved
Comparison of issue to something more familiar
Make a final emotional appeal
Current news about issue
Connect back to current news and explain how taking your position is important
How this affects reader
Return to reader and stress importance of issue
Speculation about future
Envision a future that resolves issue (I have a dream...)
Frame story: start with part of story
Finish story at end of paper
Reverse story: Start with a story showing the problem
End with a reversal of the story, showing what will happen if youir position is adopted
After you've done the informal outline above, you are ready to fill in that outline and put your sources into it. Use the "Introduction and Conclusion" table to think about what would be a good way to interest the reader in your subject.
Introduction: Your introduction should end with your question, or sometimes you might want to start with the question and end the introduction with the answer (especially if your instructor wants you to have a thesis sentence in the introduction which includes all your main points).
Body: Now that you have your three or more reasons, you should be able to go through your sources and find evidence to put in to support those points. It helps if you write either the quotes, a paraphrase or a summary write in your outline so that it is easier to write later. Or you may just want to put page numbers from your source so you can find it easier.
Objections: Remember that in writing a paper, you need to answer the objections your reader is having in their mind as they read. If the reader you have in mind will be strongly opposed to your point of view, you will probably need to do this before you start telling your position and giving your reasons. In that case, you may want to put this paragraph after your introductions. Use this format:
Example: Some people may object that... Another objection people may have is... Many people feel...
How to answer objections:
- You can refute them and say why they are wrong and why.
- You can explain what is right about that point of view and what parts you accept before you state your own point of view.
- You can explain how you and your audience have many values in common and tell how your position better meets the values you both hold.
- You can talk about the assumptions people have and how these are true or not true.
- You can narrow your position by adding qualifiers like "only when," if...then," or "sometimes," or "until...then."
Using Sources Effectively
Why use sources? Other people's ideas can help support your own ideas, or give evidence that makes your argument more believable. However, sources aren't strong unless you use them correctly. Don't just drop a quote into your paper. You need to explain how that quote, paraphrase or summary of the evidence actually makes your argument stronger. One way to do that is to follow the "TCQE" (Topic Sentence, Context, Quote, Explanation) method.
Topic Sentence - State what this quote (summary or paraphrase) will be about. Example: One reason to become a vegetarian is that eating a proper vegetarian diet is healthier.
Context - State how the quote fits your topic. Example: Research on American eating patterns shows that most Americans eat too much meat and not enough vegetables….
Quote - Embedded quote, paraphrase or summary. Be sure any quote is inside your own sentence and not “on its own.” Example: According to Mason Jackson, “Vegetarianism is a healthier diet because…”
Explanation - How the quote relates to your thesis or answers your question. Example: Jackson’s explanation of how vegetarianism meets the nutritional requirements more effectively than a meat diet is persuasive proof that a person can be a vegetarian and be healthy.
One reason to become a vegetarian is that eating a proper vegetarian diet is healthier. In fact, research on American eating patterns shows that most Americans eat too much meat and not enough vegetables, causing obesity and many other health problems. According to nutrition researcher Mason Jackson, "Research consistently shows that eating too much meat can cause heart disease while vegetarian eating causes people to fill themselves up with the types of foods that provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber as well as anti-oxidants" (Jackson 12). Jackson's explanation of how vegetarianism meets the nutritional requirements more effectively than a meat diet is persuasive proof that a person can be a vegetarian and even be more healthy.
Using Multiple Sources
What happens when you don't have a source that says your exact idea? Actually, that is great because maybe you have something original to say! For example, if you want to prove "Vegetarianism is healthier than being a carnivore" but you don't have a source saying that, look for sources that give facts that do support that idea, for example:
- James Garner says that Americans eat too much meat.
- Simone Silver says that "you get more vitamins when you eat more than 5 or 6 servings of vegetables and fruits each day."
- Jenny Johnson writes it is better to get your vitamins and minerals from natural foods rather than supplements because your body absorbs them better.
Putting those ideas in your paper can help you prove the idea that for Americans, eating a vegetarian diet can be better and healthier.
Example: Vegetarianism is healthier than being a carnivore because when you eat a vegetarian diet you tend to eat more plant foods. Do we need to eat meat? Professor James Garner, from the University of Ohio, notes that Americans eat more meat than they need ("Good Eats" 45). Simone Silver, author of What You Don't Eat Can Hurt You, explains that people who eat 5-6 servings of vegetables and fruits a day or more will get a much more balanced diet than people who try to get all of their calories from protein and carbohydrate sources, the traditional "meat and potatoes" diet of many Americans (56-57). Of course, vegetarians who eat junk food will be no more healthy than their carnivore counterparts, but often vegetarians will seek to eat a healthier diet (Johnson 12). Moreover, when people get their vitamins and minerals from natural sources rather than supplements, their bodies tend to absorb those vital nutrients better and people tend to be healthier (Silver 98).
LG from Ozamiz City, Philippines on June 29, 2013:
like this Hub! I also published a hub on Writing a College Research Paper. Yours is really very informative...Nice!